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Best Plant-Based Milk Options According to Research

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Plant-based milk - Dr. Axe

If you prefer having a non-dairy milk substitute over regular cow’s milk, you definitely have plenty of plant-based milk options to choose from.

The amount of milk alternatives available in grocery stores has never been bigger, with options made from almonds, coconut, oats, hemp seeds, peas and more, and you don’t necessarily have to follow a dairy-free diet to enjoy the low-sugar and low-calorie content of these milks, along with the taste.

Which plant-based milk is healthiest? A new study sought out to determine the answer to this popular question, in part by analyzing the micronutrient content of 85 different plant-based milks.

It was found that among the most nutrient-rich options are pea milk and soy milk, although it’s important to opt for low-sugar varieties and avoid soy if you’re sensitive to its effects.

What Is Plant-Based Milk?

A plant-based milk is any non-dairy milk made from nuts, seeds, grains or legumes.

These milk alternatives were originally created mostly for people with allergies or intolerances to dairy (aka lactose intolerance). However, they’ve become popular among vegans, vegetarians, paleo and keto dieters, and just about anyone looking to avoid digestive issues and, in some cases, lower their calorie intake.

Regular milk — whether made from cow, sheep or goat milk— isn’t necessarily unhealthy. In fact, milk contains many essential minerals, especially calcium, plus protein and some healthy fats.

Dairy milk is considered by some experts to be a “key contributor of  micronutrients in American diets, and people’s bodies can’t make them.” This is why it’s important for the public to understand how many nutrients are provided by various milk alternatives.

That being said, a somewhat high percentage of people may struggle to digest the type of sugar called lactose that’s found in regular milk, meaning milk alternatives a better choice for some.

Types:

Among the most popular milk substitutes are:

Within these different types, there are also various formulas using different ingredients. For example, some almond milks are made with vanilla flavoring, thickeners and added sugar, while others are not.

Nutrition Facts:

What’s the best plant-based milk? Minerals and other nutrients found in non-dairy milks are not always required to be listed on the product’s nutrition facts label. This can make it hard to tell how nutrient-rich or not a milk product is.

In August 2022, researchers, including those from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, compared the nutrition profile of different milk alternatives. As part of the study, researchers measured the amount of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium in plant-based milk alternatives, mostly because these are the types of essential minerals that are usually missing on nutrition labels.

Findings showed that there was variability in mineral content by type and brand.

  • Pea-based milks were found to have the most phosphorus, selenium and zinc. In fact, pea-based drinks contained about 50% higher levels of phosphorus, zinc and selenium than regular cow’s milk.
  • Soy milks had the most magnesium, even more than regular milk.

In this particular study, milks were analyzed that were made from a single base ingredient, such as almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat, pea, rice or soy. In totally, 85 samples were analyzed, including those made by different brands.

Benefits

So is plant-based milk healthy? It really depends on the specific kind.

Some types contain a good amount of added sugar and are lacking in nutrients. Others have a low sugar content and provide nutrients, such as fortified calcium and vitamin D, as well as zinc, phosphorus and magnesium.

Here are some of the main benefits of opting for plant-based milk over regular milk:

  • Lactose-free: Non-dairy milks are tolerated by people with allergies or intolerances to lactose, including those who choose or need to follow dairy-free diets.
  • Good source of some minerals: Some plant-based milk alternatives can can be important sources of these micronutrients, especially pea and soy milks. Other types can also offer some nutrients, such as folate, iron, manganese, copper, thiamine, potassium and selenium.
  • Some are low-calorie: If you choose unsweetened milks, you’re likely consuming less calories and sugar than regular milk. While one cup of regular whole milk contains 150 calories and about nine grams of sugar, one cup of unsweetened almond milk has only about 30 calories and one gram of sugar.

How to Add to Your Diet (Milk Swaps)

You can swap in milk substitutes for regular milk is just about all recipes, such as cereal, oatmeal, smoothies and baked good. That being said, plant-based milks taste different than cow’s milk, so you’ll want to keep this in mind when choosing a milk alternative.

Here are some suggestions when making plant-based milk swaps:

  • If you want to boost your protein intake, soy milk is one of the best options. It has more protein than most other types and is comparable to cow’s milk in terms of calories and protein. However, you don’t want to overdo it on soy for many reasons.
  • Choose any type you like when making a smoothie, such as unsweetened almond, cashew or coconut milk. Vanilla milks taste great in most smoothies, but you can always add your own vanilla extract and stevia or monk fruit to improve the taste.
  • If you’re looking for a creamy texture, try oat milk, which has a thicker consistency. Oat milk is a popular choice for coffee and lattes.
  • Hemp milk and soy milk have a bit of stronger tastes, so you may want to avoid these in cereal or oatmeal, unless you enjoy the flavor. On the other hand, hemp milk is a great source of healthy fats (as is coconut milk), so it’s a good addition to your diet overall.
  • Overall, remember that plant milks are lacking in some nutrients found in milk, such as vitamins A and D, as well as B12. This means it’s important to eat a balanced diet and consider supplementing if you’re not meeting your nutritional needs.

Risks and Side Effects

To avoid consuming lots of added sugar and other additives, choose unflavored and unsweetened milk substitutes. Organic types are also best, since this helps reduce your exposure to pesticides and GMOs.

Read nutrition and ingredient labels, and skip those made with a long list of additives, such as sugar, gellan gum and carrageenan.

Also be careful to avoid having any milk alternative that you have an allergy or intolerance to, such as those made from soy, almonds, cashews or coconut. If you experience side effects such as gassiness and bloating, try another type instead.

Conclusion

  • What are plant-based milks? They’re non-dairy milks made from nuts, seeds, grains or legumes.
  • A new study found that pea-based drinks have the most phosphorus, zinc and selenium, and soy-based milks have the highest amounts of magnesium.
  • For the most benefits, choose unsweetened and organic milk alternatives, and consume them as part of a balanced diet.

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